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The Day After: Multiple factors at play in recent defensive struggles

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CHARLOTTE — The first half of the 2020 season has been a seesaw for the Panthers. They started 0-2 before winning three straight without star running back Christian McCaffrey. But now they've dropped three in a row following their Thursday night loss to Atlanta.

About 13 hours after that loss, head coach Matt Rhule quoted a Hall of Famer when asked how he evaluates his team through eight games.

"I think Bill Parcells said it best: You are what your record says you are," Rhule said Friday. "We're a 3-5 team. I think losers always point to other things."

The Panthers have played well in spurts. They've also had an opportunity to at least tie four of their five losses with late drives but have failed to do so.

Though the last possession will always stand out, there's more to it than that.

"It's all these other opportunities throughout the game that you have a chance to make plays that can win the game before you even get there," Rhule said. "We're learning how to not lose, but we're also learning how to win, how to go make the plays that it requires."

A big part of that is Carolina's struggles to get off the field on defense. Over their past two games, the Panthers forced only one punt — and that came in the fourth quarter of Thursday's loss. Though the defense picked up a takeaway against the Saints and Falcons, those two opponents scored on 11-of-14 drives, excluding end-of-game possessions.

At first glance, the third-down defense was much better against Atlanta than the previous week in New Orleans. The Falcons were just 3-of-9 in the category while the Saints were 12-of-14. But the Panthers committed three third-down penalties that extended Atlanta drives, allowing the Falcons to dominate time of possession 36:30 to 23:30 and run 68 plays to the Panthers' 52.

"I don't think anything's ever just one thing or the other," Rhule said. "It's not like we gave up an 80-yard touchdown. It was just methodical by them in extending those drives. Those three penalties really hurt us last night."

In fairness, Carolina was playing several young and inexperienced players throughout Thursday's game. Cornerback Donte Jackson made his third interception of the season before the turf toe injury that's bothered him throughout the year flared up. That pressed seventh-round pick Stantley Thomas-Oliver III into defensive duty for the first time, playing 15 snaps. Corn Elder also saw time at outside corner.

"Stantley Thomas-Oliver went from being inactive, to being a guy on the punt team, to covering Julio Jones last night," Rhule said. "And you know what? He'll be much better for it."

Rhule pointed to Rasul Douglas being on the reserve/COVID-19 list rather than the team's decision to cut Eli Apple earlier this week as one factor in the Panthers' strained depth at corner.

"Eli played one game for us, so really that was the Saints game," Rhule said. "We will welcome Rasul back with open arms."

Undrafted rookie safeties Sam Franklin and Myles Hartsfield also played significant snaps against the Falcons, and both drew flags that turned into first downs.

"There were some great man-to-man reps by some of those guys. But at the end of the day, sometimes they get to the top of the route, and they grab a guy," Rhule said. "It's just trusting in your technique, and really trusting in the guys around you, trusting in the system. I think when we do that, we have a tendency to get off the field."

That plays into a larger theme the Panthers have to clean up when they get back to practicing for their Week 9 trip to Kansas City. Rhule mentioned players were improvising too much, overcompensating in trying to make an impact.

"I think too often last night, as we got into that battle, you turn the tape on, there's just too many things out there that's just not what we normally do," Rhule said. "And so as a coach, I always put that back on me. I say, 'OK, I've got to get guys to understand that no moment in football is bigger than another.' Just because Thursday Night Football is here doesn't mean it's a bigger moment.

"Football is football. You go out there, you do your job, you play hard play after play after play and trust that that process will work."

When players trust what they've studied throughout the week, it can work out positively. That's what safety Jeremy Chinn did on a fake punt in the third quarter. After Carolina took a delay of game penalty, the sideline had called off the fake because Atlanta hadn't shown the proper punt return look for it to work. But once the delay happened, the Falcons changed what they were doing. So, Chinn put the play back on and ended up gaining 28 yards on the direct snap.

"They put their punt block team back in there, so that's really the right call," Rhule said. "We just didn't run it on (fourth-and-4) because they had their punt safe defense in, and it wouldn't work — very similar to the Tampa Bay game. So he's correct in doing that.

"It's probably a microcosm of the game, of guys making a lot of decisions. Sometimes it works out, like that one, and sometimes it doesn't."

The Panthers should get multiple players back over the next few weeks that can help. While most of the focus is deservedly on McCaffrey, having Douglas (reserve/COVID-19 list), defensive tackle Zach Kerr (toe), safety Juston Burris (ribs), and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos (ankle) all come back will give the defense a boost.

But no matter who's out there, the Panthers have to do a better job of getting the details right against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs to right the ship.

View behind-the-scenes photos from Thursday Night Football in Bank of America Stadium.

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